When Elliot Hudson started having dark thoughts, and trouble getting out of bed in the mornings this fall, he knew it was time to ask for help.
Hudson has struggled with mental health and addictions for years. He’s spent a total of nearly two years in jail for a number of convictions. And while he’s now doing very well — renting his own apartment, working and just finished his probation — the coronavirus pandemic was taking a toll.
“I’ve been feeling the isolation. I’ve been feeling, you know, cut off from my recovery community. I do have access to Zoom meetings, but sitting behind a computer screen is not the same as face to face,” Hudson said.
His therapist suggested he sign up for MindBeacon. The organization was given just over $1.8 million from the Ontario government to provide free, virtual therapy.
Hudson says the application took him about 90 minutes and was “very, very involved,” prompting him for information about suicide attempts, anger issues, relationships and stretching back to his childhood.
“It made me hopeful because I thought, wow, these people are really concerned and they want the whole picture.”
But Hudson says about 10 days later, he got a form email response saying he wasn’t a match for the program.
“They basically said that my case was too complex,” he said.
“Unfortunately, you fall outside of what we can successfully manage on the Beacon digital platform. Beacon is not equipped to support the challenges of substance abuse, suicide attempts, and more immediate and critical needs of clients,” reads the email shared with Global News.
It included a list of contact information for local and provincial support services and crisis centres.
While Hudson has a complex history, he was not in crisis when he reached out to MindBeacon.
“It was extremely cold, impersonal and discouraging to get an email back from a so-called mental health organization that says, you know, your problems are more than we can handle,” said Hudson.
Hudson’s therapist Joey Michelle Doherty said she was “shocked” by the response.
“That piece hurts because, of course, mental illness is a lot about fear, feeling separate in the world. And that is certainly, you know, an invitation to feel separate,” Doherty told Global News.
She contacted other clients asking them not to complete the application, worried about the consequences of a lengthy application process and form letter rejection.
“For some of them, it could actually have been, you know, fatal,” said Doherty.
MindBeacon refused multiple interview requests for this story.
In emailed statements unattributed to any specific member of the company, MindBeacon stressed it is not a crisis service. The statement points out messaging redirecting anyone in crisis to the nearest emergency room or to call 911 is included at the bottom of its webpages.
Citing privacy, the company wouldn’t comment on Hudson’s experience, but did say in general assessments take 20-30 minutes, and people hear back within two to five days of applying.
The provincially-funded program launched May 5. As of Oct. 28, MindBeacon says 7,000 people have completed an assessment, and close to 6,000 are in therapy.
“…about 1,000 were assessed as needing alternative supports because they were struggling with a primary issue outside of MindBeacon’s treatment scope including eating issues, relationship issues, active suicidal thoughts, self-harm or substance abuse that could interfere with therapy. In those cases, MindBeacon supports the patient in accessing more appropriate care in their area,” read part of the statement.
When asked about it by Global News, Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised to look into the issue of people turned away from the taxpayer-funded service.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it, but what I can do is promise the people that are having challenges right now, I’ll talk to the Minister of Health, I’ll follow up with the organization,” Ford said at his daily press briefing Thursday.
Ford pointed to his government’s $3.8B commitment to mental health over 10 years, and the appointment of Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Michael Tibollo, as evidence of how seriously his government takes the issue.
“We’ll be on it, I promise you that,” Ford said of the concerns over MindBeacon.
In a statement, the Ministry of Health pointed to specific investments in virtual and online mental health services during the pandemic: up to $12M in emergency funding in April, and a further $3M in September.
“Through these investments, the government was proud to announce the launch of Internet-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programs, developed in partnership with MindBeacon and Morneau Shepell, and are being provided at no out-of-pocket costs to Ontarians across the province.”
The government says the programs have already helped thousands of people with anxiety and depression, including front-line health-care workers.
“MindBeacon and Morneau Sheppell provide interventions suitable for a specific population with mild-moderate symptoms. Suitability for the treatment is determined by the assessment completed when a user signs up.”
The Ministry of Health recommended people with “more severe issues” contact ConnexOntario or local providers, and those in crisis should reach out to Distress and Crisis Ontario and Kids Help Phone.
The Canadian Mental Health Association is still finalizing data from a new survey of 1,508 Canadians completed on Oct. 15, but the early results show help is badly needed in the pandemic’s second wave.
“In fact, for many people, the situation has gotten worse. People are feeling more worry, more anxiety and more stress as the pandemic goes on,” National CEO Margaret Eaton told Global News.
The survey found only 35 per cent of Canadians agree the current public mental health system is meeting the needs of Canadians.
Eaton said she was “sad” to hear of Hudson’s experience, and it is indicative of gaps in the system.
Eaton said while there have been increased supports for mental health at both the provincial and federal levels, they’re focused on the “worried well” — people who wouldn’t have had mental health issues before the pandemic.
“But we know that people who have a history of mental illness or substance abuse are going to be even more affected by the pandemic. The pandemic exacerbates their conditions. And so some of these lighter touch sort of programs may not be appropriate. But there should be more,” Eaton said.
“It’s really hard to get mental health services in this country to begin with. And it’s become worse in the pandemic.”
Both Hudson and his therapist understand that well.
Doherty is now running a wait list for the first time in her career. She said she’s had more after-hours reach outs from clients in need in the last few weeks, as she has in the last five years combined.
“People are feeling it. I think going into the long winter. Their resiliency, you know, is kind of maxed out…I think for a lot of people, the idea of kind of closing in and not having resources, contact, socialization is really scary,” Doherty said.
As for Hudson’s own health, he’s set up regular sessions with Doherty, in addition to other appointments such as a psychiatrist he sees monthly.
And he’s feeling pretty good, having just finished probation last week.
He’s kept busy with a new job in home renovations.
“I’m enjoying the creativity of it and, you know, creating things and building on it,” Hudson said.
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